top of page

Burn Ahead: A Hiker's Guide to this Blog

Hello and welcome to burn.education, the blog where I (and my future collaborators) put the torch to eduspeak buzzwords, unexamined assumptions & not-so-best-practices! In this inaugural post, I'll pound in some signposts so you can navigate your journey with the coming firestorm of spicy content from the world of ed.


a sign beside a road reading "prescribed burn ahead"
Sometimes a sick burn is just what the doctor ordered.

What lies ahead:

wide-ranging topics with a common core (no, not that Common Core!)

So, what is burn.education about? Should you give me any of your precious attentional oxygen? Short answer: topic tags will be all over the place, but just one big theme will tie them all together: education for efficacy. I'm an autodidact in most of the subjects I'll be ranting about here,* which are wide-ranging but coherent, I swear. I can explain how they cohere much better with a visual:

a mind map showing "political-economic efficacy" in the center, with "critical macro-financial literacy," "applied civic engagement," "pedagogy," and "literature & culture" around it
Fig. 1 - oh, you're just more confused now?

The graphic shows how all these subjects tie back to my central mission for burn.education: to put the fire under myself and my readers (students, other educators, parents, whoever) and keep it stoked. In my experience, that's hard to do if knowledge-seeking doesn't serve somehow to enhance efficacy, our deep human need to have an impact on the world. That 's why everything here will connect to my lifelong quest to teach and learn how to achieve efficacy: the ability to shape the world around us. Drawing on the humanistic tradition in psychology, I believe our highest human potential comes from making an impact on the world, leaving a legacy of something bigger than ourselves. Here's another brilliantly drawn visual that breaks down how efficacy should be the center that anchors everything else in education:

Fig. 2: Efficacy at the intersection of self (intellectual, emotional & somatic) & world (ecological, economic, political & cultural), enabled by soft skills (psychological wisdom) & hard skills (technical know-how)

Want a really, really involved version of this mind map? Here's a peak inside the true chaos of my brain, courtesy of my brain's digital extension, the amazing ClickUp.


In most forms of education I've encountered, this fundamental human need for efficacy has been an afterthought, something for a few "service learning days" or a couple of questions on a career guidance worksheet. "How will this help my career?" is a good question all students ask (and teachers often have pretty weak answers). But the bigger question students don't often know how to articulate is "How will this help me create a career (and a life) that satisfy my need to make a mark?" How you answer that question determines how your various life-stage "crises" will unfold: will you wake up at 40 wondering why your salary doesn't buy happiness? Or at 25 wondering why the job that seemed so impactful at the college career fair now feels like an exercise in futility? Will you spend most of your working life with your nose to the grindstone, chasing external validation (money and status) and availing yourself of all the manifold distractions late capitalism offers to mute the nagging voice that asks "is this it?" Or will you have frequent and productive "crises" in which you re-assess your path and seek constantly to improve the way you impact the world?

Not surprisingly, my own career path has been one of frequent crises and re-assessments. Indeed this blog is one result of my latest pivot-in-progress. I've always been a polymath (read: terminally curious and flaming with ADHD pride). So this blog is partly an effort to synthesize and explore the significance of various obsessions I've had over the years. For me, teaching secondary social studies (for over a decade) was always mainly a vehicle for my own learning. When it stopped satisfying my curiosity, I punched out, becoming part of the post-pandemic teacher shortage and going full-time in my own educational business. Now my goal is to orient that business less around test prep and academic writing support, and more around the themes that have obsessed me outside of school and which I've struggled to incorporate into the traditional classroom (see my . While much of the motivation to write this blog, for me, lies in tying these seemingly disparate subjects together in a master framework for the kind of education for which I burn, I realize that many readers may be interested mainly in one or two of these areas, so I've broken them down into blog categories to which you can subscribe in any combination:

Your voice matters!

Active citizenship in the burn.education community

Depending on your situation (student, teacher, education leader, or just fellow nerd), I invite you to be part of my evolving thinking about these subjects, and to reflect on how the ideas here fit into your own educational journey. The more I'm part of a conversation with my readers, the more we can all grow and the more this blog can serve up the most helpful and relevant content for each member of the community. And of course we all have our online homes where we spend the most time, so I invite you to keep in touch wherever you most like to hang out! All my socials, podcast appearances, and links for my various educational endeavors are here, as well as links to try out various ed tech apps I'll be ranting about. See something here that you want to explore more in-depth? you can always book a call with me to discuss how we might bring an idea to life for you or your students, whether that involves collaborating on a curriculum development or ed-tech consulting project (which I do for work), or just geeking out and batting ideas around together (which I do for fun and for free if the interest is mutual).

Topic Sneak Peaks

Still with me? Clearly you're looking for a deep(er) dive into the different topics, so you can curate your subscription and weed out the stuff where I get in the weeds (although your weeds are hopefully someone else's flowers). No? Just want it all? Then by all means, stop reading and...

For the rest of you, here's the map of coming attractions, each linked to its category page (possibly still empty when if you're one of my early-bird readers). You can pick which weeds you want to wade into at the end. 👇🏼

 

The art and science (mostly art) of pedagogy has to solve the incredibly hard problem of how to shape humans into efficacious agents of history, when many forces in the world are pushing the other way. Discussions of teaching strategy and tactics here will all that view as their starting point. The distinction between strategy and tactics is core to my thinking on a lot of issues, and should be much more broadly understood and applied beyond military matters. When discussing pedagogy on a strategic level, I'm concerned with the "why" more than the "how" of teaching: with the inner and outer capacities one is trying to develop in students (and in oneself). Real learning always takes place in a dialectical relation between the inner and outer worlds, and pedagogical strategy aims to map these worlds and the connections one wants to build between them. In Fig. 2 above, I find it useful to map the inner and outer worlds into some rough-and-ready domains (always interconnected of course) when doing high-level strategic thinking in my pedagogy. I try to think about the intellectual, emotional and somatic/embodied aspects of my teaching's inner impacts. And when thinking about content, it helps to think about the ecological/physical/demographic dimension at the "base" of the phenomenon we're studying, and the economic, political and cultural dimensions built on top of it (yes, somewhat old-school Marxist; I'm aware of the limitations). In more tactical pedagogy posts, I'll address ed-tech, assessment, and curriculum design moves, and will share lots of practical ready-to-deploy materials, so teachers and homeschoolers, stay tuned.

Rethinking "skills"

Few concepts in education are more troubled than "skills" (often rebranded as "strategies" in an unsuccessful bid to escape the pedagogical baggage). I like to think about "capacities" and "skillfulness," of which more later. On this blog I'll bucket discussions of skills into the familiar "hard" and "soft," mapping these roughly as inputs to the central goal of efficacy coming from the "world" and "self" sides of the dialectic, respectively (see Fig. 2). I grew up and worked for many years in an alternative pedagogical tradition (Waldorf) that emphasizes both hard and soft skills in innovative ways, with an emphasis on practical and fine arts. I think a lot of what they do in Waldorf is on the right track and ahead of the curve, but I have my own views on what practical and psychological skill-sets are critical for the decades ahead. On the hard side, my educational platform would have the following planks:

  • bring back shop, with an emphasis on the green transition

  • less tech but more intentional teaching of real-world digital skills (sorely needed; there are no "digital natives")

  • tie practical financial literacy and home ec to critical political-economic education

And on the soft side:

  • take "SEL" (social-emotional learning) and "trauma-informed" out of the buzzword/lip-service bucket and put them into practice via somatic practices infused into the entire curriculum, not worksheets (requires massive human capital investment and culture shift).

Although it's aimed at educators, parents and to some extent students, the majority of burn.education content probably won't be "about" education in a direct way. That's because I'm in the "content is king" camp of pedagogy (Natalie Wexler's The Knowledge Gap is a big influence), and it's my obsessions with the types of content below that got me into ed in the first place. My pedagogical ideas are like immune responses to bad practices I've encountered, whereas my content ideas are proactive; they're what I think about at night when I'm not dealing with students. My obsessions fall into the following buckets.

 

crit lit not lit crit

As a creative writer, I was always viscerally repulsed by most English teachers. I had one amazing Ms. Wanner in middle school, who unlocked my creative potential by sending me into the woods with a notebook, but the more analytical and lit-crit focused the English class, the more I rebelled. Later, as a teacher's aide sitting in on innumerable Common Core ELA classes during my way-too-many years in teacher training purgatory, I witnessed far more heinously illiterate and anti-literate butchery of the subject than I ever did as a privileged but hard-to-please Waldorf student growing up. So my approach to literature and other cultural products on this blog will be that of a practitioner and consumer, not a teacher. I'll talk about my own creative projects and the works that inspire me, and invite my readers in education to experiment with ways of relating to cultural texts beyond that uncultured confection never found outside the stifling air of the classroom: the five-paragraph lit-crit essay. My own view is that criticism is best left to the press and to cocktail conversation; foisting it on students in the procrustean format typical of ELA is a crime. Non-nerd lit-crit is an art in itself, as Nabokov famously pointed out with his portrait of the "artist-critic." If you're like me and you have intense experiences of cultural texts, you're likely sometimes motivated to write about it. My take on cultural studies is that it should mimic as closely as possible the way cultured people outside school interact with culture: they talk about it al lot, but only write about it when they're really hit by something & just have to process their response to it at length. So that's what you'll get here, and usually the cultural things that hit me hard are those that speak to the topics below (though I am far from a didactic social realist)...

 

as seen IRL

The abysmal state of civics education is one of many existential issues on which school-bound types favor jawboning & hand-wringing over changing their ways. As with the inseparable discipline of economics (see below), the problem with political (mis)education is its rigid, schematic, textbook nature. Make the topic into a long list of out-of-context jargon to memorize (executive branch, judicial review, constitutional monarchy), and you guarantee it will be so boring that not only will students fail to remember it, they'll fail to engage with it as citizens. Rather convenient for the masters of the universe. This blog will explore my own experiments with political education in and out of the classroom, which are many and varied and have led me to some positions that fit rather poorly into the culture war's sterile pseudo-debate between "woke" and "anti-woke" curriculum. While, to quote Keynes, "the republic of my imagination lies to the extreme left of celestial space," I will spend most of my time here picking bones with fellow progressives over what I see as the bastardization of the legacy of Howard Zinn, my teen idol, in social studies education, to the detriment of true civic literacy and hence political efficacy.

 

critical macro-financial literacy

A major gripe I have with progressive social studies and civics education is its common lack of focus on economics, ceding this supposedly apolitical and highly technical terrain to "the experts." Economics and finance are neither apolitical nor impenetrably technical, but two crucial pillars of civic efficacy are

  1. a good-enough technical understanding of the public finances and

  2. a conceptual grasp of the main economic schools of thought and debates that shape political positions.

Jump into any online political debate, and you'll see adults flailing around in the dark, talking past each other and fundamentally confusing the issues because they lack critical economic literacy. As usual, thought leaders in education recognize the urgency of this problem, but their solutions are almost always false. This blog will examine the fundamental disconnect in K-12 education between civics and financial literacy, which are viewed as two separate crises with separate technical fixes on offer, but which are in fact only solvable together. Textbook econ at the K-12 level is stuck in the 1990s--which is more or less like the 1890s. Neoclassical dogma reigns supreme. The "laws" and theories students memorize bear almost no relation to the post-2008 (let alone post-2020) world of globalized financial capitalism, characterized by oligopolistic corporate power, monetary dominance in dealing with escalating crisis tendencies, and the commanding position of market-based finance and asset manager capitalism, which in turn have created a global "Kleptopia" (the title of an excellent book; Moneyland and The Hidden Wealth of Nations are good compliments).

I've read a ton of heterodox macro and another ton of capitalist micro from the perspective of practitioners (think SEC filings and hedge fund letters, not textbooks). To me, the best synthesis of heterodox theory (imagining a different, usually less capitalist, economic world) and practitioners' heuristics (IRL capitalism) is the critical macro-finance framework, which I came to by way of the economic historian Adam Tooze. I'll be talking a lot about this framework as it relates to the green transition, and how it might be brought down from the Ivory Tower and into K-12, because I think democratizing it is very important. Speaking of the green transition, that brings us to the root of it all, which is the small fact that the world is burning and education seems to be fiddling. So we need to rethink how we teach...

 

ecological & technical literacy for the green transition

Gen Z's laudable school climate strikes notwithstanding, ecological literacy in K-12 (& often in undergrad) remains hopelessly siloed in science class, even where political interference isn't pushing it to the margins altogether. If every section of the Financial Times has been taken over by the looming and all-pervading challenge of climate change, why hasn't every area of the curriculum been similarly transformed? Just as decarbonizing the economy, done right, could bring a ton of positive knock-on effects, many of legacy ed's pedagogical problems could be addressed by reorienting the curriculum around the green transition. I will be talking a lot about how that might work, and hopefully bringing in some critical STEM educators and practitioners to get into some more technical topics (in case you couldn't tell by now, I'm no specialist).

Don't be a stranger!

If you made it this far, you definitely need to subscribe. Pick one category or many, or if you hate email (like me) just follow along on the socials. I can't wait to geek out with you!


 

* I do have a swanky liberal arts BA (Middlebury, in philosophy and religion) and a couple of education credentials, none of which are worth the paper they're printed on. But everything significant I know--or know that I don't know--I learned in the school of hard knocks: on the job, from my accomplices in social-movement activism, from newspapers and podcasts and books across the political spectrum.

30 views0 comments
bottom of page